Focusing too closely on a specific digital tribe for inspiration could result in lackluster growth for a mainstream brand, writes Nigel Hollis.
His premise is that brands only succeed when they appeal to the crowd-culture – that mass of digital natives ready and eager to share with their like-minded acquaintances. To win in social media, Holt argues, brands must target novel ideologies from within a specific interest group. It’s an appealing idea, but one that may doom brands to an isolated backwater rather than the mainstream.
Many brands are struggling to unlock the apparent value of social media. A recent analysis conducted by Tania Yuki, founder and CEO of social content analytics firm Shareablee, finds that of 65 billion actions prompted by posts made by US brands across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram only 7% involved sharing the brand’s content.
It wasn’t meant to be this difficult. Rewind a few years and social media was going to allow brands to build communities that would religiously promote them to others. So what went wrong?
Holt suggests we forgot that people actually want to follow people, not brands. And he’s right. Look at any social media ranking and brands come a distant second to celebrities: Cristiano Ronaldo, Shakira or Vin Diesel on Facebook, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Barrack Obama on Twitter, or Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Kim Kardashian on Instagram.
Holt, however, draws our attention to a different type of celebrity, focusing on e-sports names that most of us have only heard of in passing like PewDiePie, VanossGaming and CaptainSparklez. These gamers and gaming commentators attract millions of followers on YouTube, dwarfing the efforts of major brands and at a fraction of the cost.
“How do you really turn a trend that is evident in some corner of the internet into a philosophy that the brand can espouse?”
Holt argues that brands should take inspiration from digital micro-cultures like e-sports, identifying the ideology that underlies their passion and leveraging it online to sustain their own cultural relevance.
The problem is, this fails to bridge the huge gap between passionate micro-cultures and the success of brands that must sell to the masses. How do you really turn a trend that is evident in some corner of the internet into a philosophy that the brand can espouse? Very few mass-market brand owners are content with only targeting a small group of aficionados.
Brands do benefit by tapping into the power of popular culture. When Zayn from One Direction tweeted, “Meet my friend…Jack Daniels he’s cool, ha” retweets boosted mentions of the brand by 300%.
People care about people, so linking the brand to a celebrity can pay off. Millward Brown recently analysed 75 viral events across 16 brands between 2012 to 2015, and one in four of the events that triggered a significant uplift in brand buzz featured a celebrity.
But I believe that the way to achieve social media success by appealing to the new crowdculture actually hinges on playing by the old rules.
Look within the brand – not without
Among the brands Holt cites in his article as successfully appealing to a niche ideology is Chipotle – but its success comes from inside the brand itself. Chipotle reflects the ethos of its founder, and that sense of purpose resonates with a wider audience; it did not originate from that audience.
Getting people to talk about a brand on social media is possible, but only if you have a brand idea that strikes an emotional chord, or offers something useful or compelling.
Make the idea as meaningful to as many people as possible
A brand idea also needs to have potential scale. If a brand becomes too associated with a specific sub-culture it can become defined and limited by that association.
Take the example of Toyota’s Scion brand in the US. Designed to appeal to a younger, anti-establishment audience, Scion was marketed through tactics like the creation of its own record label, guerrilla marketing and sponsorship, including the infamous Slayer car. The problem was that while Scion may have become well-known within the heavy metal crowd, more mainstream buyers did not know it at all. Attempts to remedy this came too late. Earlier this year Toyota declared Scion was dead and has rebranded the existing vehicles as Toyota.
Amplify it with advertising
When we carried out our research into viral events, there was one factor that prompted more uplifts in conversation than celebrities and that was good, old-fashioned advertising. More than one in three viral events was sparked by a brand campaign.
Whether it’s Cannes, the IPA or the Effies, the campaigns that win awards tend to share two common properties: a strong sense of purpose and a creative idea that taps into a human truth. Many award winners claim that success was due in part to social media, but I believe that is more effect than cause. Millward Brown’s research finds that people perceive award-winning ads to be more different, enjoyable and involving than average, and as a result they’re more willing to talk about and share them with others.
“Focusing too closely on a specific digital tribe for inspiration could result in lackluster growth for a mainstream brand”
What works for smaller, niche brands rarely works at scale. Focusing too closely on a specific digital tribe for inspiration could result in lackluster growth for a mainstream brand. If you’re going to take your inspiration from popular culture make sure the ideology is something that your brand can associate with, and which gives the brand room to grow.
And don’t expect what you have to say to diffuse through social media unless you help it on its way with advertising. People can’t share what they don’t know about, and they never share something they don’t find meaningful.